Jonathon Porritt and Pam Warhurst launched the Landscape Futures lecture series last week with a rousing challenge: do we individually and as a profession have the right vision and skills to create sustainable landscapes?

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA
Politicans paralysed by fear over sustainability imperative

Chaired by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA, their inspiring speeches championed an integrated view of land use, professional skills fit for the future and the power of individuals to put sustainable food growing at the heart of local communities, writes Susannah Charlton.

Porritt started by spelling out the stark global competition for our finite stock of land caused by increasing global populations and rising consumption: competition for food, feed for animals, fibre (such as cotton), fuel and feedstocks for the chemicals industry, not to mention development. These pressures create a ‘sustainability imperative’: not a choice as many politicians would like to believe, but an imperative, to change how we manage the landscape.

International organisations, such as the FAO, World Bank and large food companies, have invested in more sustainable ways of producing individual crops, such as sugar, palm oil and soy beans, and in third-party accreditation schemes such as Fair Trade. However, they have realised that the model of single-crop certification is complex, expensive and impractical, so they are looking for a more integrated and holistic way of working on a regional or landscape scale, one that is defined by a region’s natural characteristics (such as a watershed) rather than by arbitrary lines on a map.

Five Capitals Framework

Forum for the Future, founded by Porritt in 1996, has developed a model called the Five Capitals Framework for Sustainable Asset Management using the experience of large landholders like the Grosvenor and Crown estates, which have been managing land for the benefit of future generations for hundreds of years.

Although some people find the language of capital assets off-putting: ‘when we love a place, we really don’t like to see it described as a capital asset’, this framework is, says Porritt, a useful tool for assessing the natural, human, social, manufactured and financial capital embodied in the landscape, and for making decisions to optimise the use of those assets indefinitely into the future.

Questioning the profession

Bringing the debate back to landscape and planning professionals, Porritt asked how well prepared we are to make these holistic, integrated, optimising decisions about land use. He quoted a discussion paper by Merrick Denton-Thompson, who introduced the lecture, questioning whether landscape architects need to put less emphasis on the aesthetic qualities of our work, which may be seen (rightly or wrongly) as dispensable in hard times, and more on the concrete benefits we can bring in terms of ‘health, well-being and the sustainable use of natural and irreplaceable resources’.

Despite attempts at reform,‘our planning system is essentially one still driven by pretty crude trade-off dynamics,’ Porritt said. Politicians love to meddle with planning, but don’t get to the heart of the problem which is how to ensure that professionals have the skills needed ‘to enable local communities to be advised professionally about better ways of achieving optimised outcomes’ Many years after the Earth Summit, ‘are we still equipping those coming into the profession with skills fit for yesterday and largely unfit for the complicated decisions they’ll have to make for tomorrow?’ Porritt asked.

Kinder world

Pam Warhurst, the second speaker, started Incredible Edible Todmorden, now part of a network of more than 50 groups in the UK and overseas, to answer the question ‘What do we need in order to leave a kinder world for our children?’  She spoke passionately about how ‘each and every one of us has the means to shift the way we live our lives and thus our communities’.

Whereas professionals too often use a language that people don’t understand, Warhurst used the language of food to engage people, empowering them to bring sustainable food production into the centre of their town and ‘take back the spaces of the public realm’.

Photographs showed how successful the initiative has been, as she described how the community had colonised sites like the canal towpath, health-centre car park, job centre and a town-centre building lot with containers growing a huge range of fruit and vegetables.

Food for thought

Warhurst argued that by bringing everything back to a local level, you can rethink your local economy and get people to understand their personal responsibility to the environment: ‘You can’t pass the buck on sustainability,’ she said. Given that ‘the only thing you can really change is what you can get your hands on’, what are you going to do?

During questions Porritt emphasised the importance of using democratic systems to tackle sustainability, despite the fact that ‘politicans are paralysed by fear’, as autocratic means are by definition unsustainable. He cited Germany  as a model of how you can embed an understanding of sustainability in education and apprenticeship and how feed-in energy tariffs are structured.

Matthew Taylor posited whether we needed to think about change in a different way, moving away from top-down policies and plans to building social movements and campaigns.

Forum for the Future
Incredible Edible Todmorden
Landscape Futures lecture series 


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